John O'Keeffe, Landscape Painter

(b. 1747,d. 1833)

Landscape Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

John O'Keeffe. Picture, by Thomas Lawranson; in the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo, Emery Walker, London).

Was younger brother of Daniel O'Keeffe (q.v.), and was born in Abbey Street, Dublin, on 24th June, 1747. At an early age he entered the Dublin Society's Drawing School in Shaw's Court, where he studied under Robert West, and was a prize-winner in 1764.* In 1767, his address being given as "at Mr. Wilkinson's, Chequer Lane," he exhibited "Birds and Flowers in Water-colour" at the Society of Artists in William Street. This was his first and last appearance as an exhibitor, for, attracted to the stage, he abandoned any idea of becoming a painter and, on the 14th of January, 1767, he made his debut as an actor at Smock Alley theatre in a comedy, "The Gay Gallant," written by himself. He obtained an engagement under H. Mossop, with whom he remained twelve years, acting in Dublin and in the country. When at Cork he painted for the theatre a large ship. In his "Recollections" he tells us: "I had, with my own hand, painted a large ship of canvas and timber; to do which notable exploit I hired a boat and rowed out into the basin at Cove, where the India ship was moored, and not far from the stern I took a correct drawing of her, from which drawing I painted the scene for my little piece 'The India Ship.' . . . Many years after I had quitted Ireland this handiwork of mine, the painted ship, hung as a relique up among the cloudings over the stage, and nobody dared to cut it down or touch it."

During the years he was on the stage in Ireland he occasionally employed his pencil in making drawings of landscapes and views. When in Belfast he did six drawings for Lord Donegal. "One of these drawings," he tells us, "I took from the top of Joy's paper-mills; another from a park on the side of an eminence, the left-hand side of the town as you look towards the sea. In this drawing I thought it becoming to introduce a few living creatures, and drew some deer and a cow and a goat. When I showed my performance to Lord Donegal he laughed long and loud, saying: 'But what of all things could bring a goat in the park?'" Later in the same year, when at Kilkenny, O'Keeffe made drawings in Indian ink, a "View from Windgap Hill," and a "View from the north showing St. Mary's Church," and two others. He also occasionally did portraits, as he mentions in his "Recollections," two whole-lengths of William Lewis, the actor, in the characters of Belcour and Captain Brazer, one in coloured wash, the other in bistre; and one of Mrs. Lewis. In 1774 his sight began to fail, and he became totally blind in 1797. About 1779 or 1780 he left Ireland and settled in London, and devoted himself to dramatic composition. He was a most prolific playwright, but confined his efforts chiefly to farces and comic operas. His comedy of "Wild Oats" still holds the stage, and some of the songs in his operas, such as "I am a Friar of Order Grey," and "Amo, Amas, I loved a Lass," are still popular. In 1826 he issued his "Recollections," a rambling, gossipy book, with much interesting information, but not remarkable for its accuracy. He died at Bedford Cottage, Southampton, on 4th February, 1833.

O'Keeffe married in Limerick on 1st October, 1774, Mary, elder daughter of Tottenham Heaphy, an actor. He separated from her in 1780 and she died in 1813. By her he had two children who survived, John Tottenham O'Keeffe, born in Cork in 1775, who was educated at Oxford, became a clergyman, and died in 1803; and Adelaide, born in Eustace Street, Dublin, on 5th November, 1776, who affectionately tended her father in his later years. She was author of many poems and novels, including "Zenobia, or the Fall of Palmyra." A portrait of O'Keeffe painted by Thomas Lawranson (q.v.), in 1786, is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was engraved by Bragg as frontispiece to Vol. I of the "Recollections." O'Keeffe mentions three portraits done in the Dublin Society's School by his fellow-pupils Thomas Hickey, John Bryan and John Trotter.

NOTE: * He says, in his "Recollections," that he was six years of age when he became a pupil in Shaw's Court, which would be in 1753. This is clearly an error, as the Shaw's Court School was not opened until 1757.

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